Jesus With Us

“Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I commanded you: and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20).

The good news according to Matthew ends with truly great news.

Matthew has set forth Jesus’ resurrection from the dead: the women have come to find the tomb empty, for an angel had rolled the stone away, sat upon it, proclaimed the good news of the resurrection to them, and declared how He went before them to Galilee (Matthew 28:1-8). Jesus then appeared the women and instructed them to tell the rest of the disciples to go to Galilee to see Him there (Matthew 28:9-10). The disciples went to Galilee and saw the Lord Jesus; many believed, but some doubted (Matthew 28:16-17). In His final words in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus gives the “Great Commission”: all authority has been given to Him in heaven and on earth, and so they are to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them (Matthew 28:18-20a). The Great Commission ends with a promise: Jesus is with them always, unto the end of the αιωνος, “age” or “forever,” and thus “world” (Matthew 28:20b).

We can imagine how the disciples would have found this promise very comforting. And yet, within forty days, Jesus would ascend to heaven (Acts 1:1-11); He will only again walk the earth on the day of judgment (Matthew 25:31-46, Acts 1:11). So if Jesus no longer walked with them, or, for that matter, with us, how could He say that He would be “with” us until the end of the world?

Throughout the book of Acts the Apostles seem to interact frequently in some way with the Lord Jesus. Peter declares that Jesus is the one who, on the basis of the Father’s promise, poured out the Holy Spirit on them (Acts 2:33); Peter affirms that faith in Jesus provided the power which healed the lame man in the Temple (Acts 3:16). The Lord Jesus would give Peter a vision and speak with him in it (Acts 10:9-17). Stephen saw Jesus as the Son of Man standing at God’s right hand (Acts 7:55-56). Paul saw the Lord Jesus in the resurrection and heard Him speak (Acts 9:1-8, 22:6-10, 26:12-18), as would Ananias, whom the Lord called to minister to Paul (Acts 9:10-16). Paul would receive further messages from the Lord Jesus, both direct and spoken as well as through circumstance and hindrance (Acts 16:6-9, 18:9-10, 23:11). We do well to remember how Luke begins the book of Acts, speaking of the previous Gospel as “all that Jesus began to do and teach,” implying that the whole book of Acts continues Jesus’ work (Acts 1:1): Jesus is with the Apostles throughout, strengthening them, empowering them, reassuring them. He may not have been present in the way He had been during His ministry, but He was still there, reigning as Lord, sustaining His people to do His work.

Is Jesus still there since the days of the Apostles? Some have suggested that Jesus’ promise extended only to the destruction of Jerusalem, and such “ended the age.” Such is inconsistent with the promises of Jesus and His Apostles and the reality of the faith ever since. It is true that Jesus made Himself known to the Apostles in ways which He no longer does so; they saw Him in life, fully experienced Him, and bore personal eyewitness testimony to His resurrection, and no one since the first century can do so (1 John 1:1-4). There is nothing further to be made known about the good news of Jesus Christ than has already been made known through the Apostles and their associates. And yet Jesus’ promises remain. The universe continues to exist through Him and for Him and is upheld and sustained by Him (Colossians 1:15-17, Hebrews 1:3). Jesus still reigns as Lord (Hebrews 13:8). Where two or three of His people are gathered, He is in their midst (Matthew 18:20). In Revelation 4:1-5:14 John is able to see what goes on in heaven beyond the veil: God is on the throne, and the Lamb with Him, and they reign in glory and honor. We may not be able to see past that veil, yet such makes it no less true and no less real. Furthermore, if we are in Christ, we have His Spirit, the Spirit of God (Romans 8:9-11); by means of the Spirit He maintains His presence in and among His people individually and collectively (1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 6:19-20, 2 Corinthians 5:5, Ephesians 1:13-14). Jesus, therefore, remains with us.

The end of the Gospel of Matthew is as its beginning. When narrating Jesus’ birth Matthew directs our minds to the prophecy of Isaiah, that the child born of the virgin would be Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 1:22-25; Isaiah 7:14); Matthew ends the Gospel with Jesus’ own promise that He will remain Immanuel, God with us (Matthew 28:20).

Thus it cannot be said that Jesus merely was Immanuel, human and in the midst of mankind for a short time, only to depart and abandon humanity. Jesus is Immanuel; He still is “God with us.” Is He with us in the exact same form and way He was with the disciples in Galilee and Judea? Not at all; instead, He is with us in more profound and compelling ways, ruling heaven and earth from the right hand of the throne of God, actively sustaining the creation, and strengthening His people through the Spirit. And so we can have the great confidence, as John declares, that He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4); we have hope that as Jesus now is we will be in the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20-58).

We will experience difficult times and wonder if God has abandoned us. At those times we do well to remember Jesus’ final promise in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is Immanuel; He is with us until we will be with Him in eternity in the resurrection. We may not see Him with our eyes of flesh but we can discern Him through eyes of faith and spirit. We can know that He is there, for in God we live and move and have our being, and Jesus sustains our life (Acts 17:27-28, Hebrews 1:3). It may seem that the forces of darkness are prevailing, but we know that the Lord Jesus truly reigns and will gain the victory over them, having already sealed those who are His (Ephesians 6:12, 1 John 4:4, Revelation 12:1-20:10). May we entrust ourselves to the Lord Jesus and make disciples of all nations as He commanded us, reliant on His strength!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A Singing People

Is any among you suffering? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing praise (James 5:13).

The people of God are to be a singing people.

As James began to conclude his letter he set forth a series of exhortations for Christians in their walk with God (James 5:7-20). Christians who are suffering should pray; those who are cheerful should sing praise (James 5:13).

James’ exhortation should not surprise us. While in prison Paul and Silas sang and prayed (Acts 16:25). Christians are to speak, teach, and admonish one another in song (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). Such exhortations build on the heritage and experience of Israel, singing the psalms before YHWH in the Temple and in their lives (1 Chronicles 25:1-31, Matthew 26:30). Thus, when things went well, the people sang praise; when things were not so well, they sang laments. They sang thanksgivings; they sang prayers. In all this they were singing before God. Thus we do well to consider: are we a singing people?

It seems that the voices of the people of God continue to grow quieter. In the assembly many can barely be heard; Christians will listen to secular and/or “contemporary Christian” music, get used to hearing singing, but do not share in that singing themselves. It is easy to believe that singing is better left to other people.

Bifurcation of life in terms of times of “worship” and the “rest of life,” along with an emphasis on the performative elements of singing, have proven very deleterious. We do well to note that James tells individual Christians to sing praises when cheerful (James 5:13). As there is no authorization for the use of instruments when Christians sing together (Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16), there is no authority for them in the individual praises of Christians, either (James 5:13). Attempting to suggest the problem features instruments “in worship” and not in the “rest of life,” as many are wont to do, simply beg the question. From where do these distinctions come? They are not in the pages of Scripture; singing in the assembly is not uniquely defined as “worship” over and against individual singing. No direct association is made in Scripture between singing together and “worship” as commonly understood. Likewise, while we all like to have good singing, and we would all love to sing well, performance should never be the driver when it comes to our singing, individually or collectively; the substantive message of the song should always be the driver. The best performed song that does not speak, teach, or instruct has no share in Ephesians 5:19 or Colossians 3:16; praise can be beautiful, but beauty without substance is not praise (James 5:13).

Abide with MeSinging is designed to build up and encourage (1 Corinthians 14:26); we can only do that when we recognize the profound value in the substance and singing of songs. Science has known for some time that people learn messages better when put to a tune; the best preached sermon can hardly match the visceral power of a well written hymn. Singing can change your mood; singing can help us keep our minds and hearts on Christ as they should be, even in difficult circumstances, just like Paul and Silas in Acts 16:25. We can sing praises when alone; we can join our voices together to praise God in song and instruct each other, audibly demonstrating the unity we share in God in Christ (1 John 1:1-6). From song we can derive strength in the moment of trial and reinforce the joy of more fortunate times.

Singing is not better left to other people; God intends for all of His people to sing. The quality of the performance is never nearly as important as the value of the substance. Singing edifies mind, heart, and soul. In good times we do well to sing; in distress we ought to cry out to God in prayer and sing laments. There is a song for every circumstance if we are only willing to sing it. May we be the singing people of God to His glory and praise!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Love of the Brethren

Let love of the brethren continue (Hebrews 13:1).

It is always easy to pick on “the brethren” and their problems. For as long as there have been Christians, there have been ways in which Christians have fallen short (Romans 3:23). The letters of the New Testament from Romans through Jude are all written, to some extent or another, on account of the problems of Christians, either rebuking Christians for failures or warning Christians about the dangers that come from false teaching and sin. To this day it does not take long to make a long list of problems we have experienced with “the brethren,” on an individual or “institutional” level. We Christians can always find all sorts of reasons why what “we” think, say, and do sometimes causes problems; “we” can always find difficulties with how “we” operate.

Such critiques clearly have their time and place, as can be seen in the New Testament. Yet we do well to recognize that “the brethren” were never meant to just be a punching bag. Just as the letters of the New Testament from Romans through Jude were written to some extent to deal with the problems of Christians, those same letters were also written to some extent to praise and build up those Christians in what they were doing correctly. While there will always be problems and things “we” are not doing right, we do well to recognize that there is plenty that “we” are doing that is right, and, in fact, reflects the joy, peace, and love which can be found in God in Christ.

The Hebrew author has been quite critical of the Jewish Christians to whom he writes. He is concerned about their spiritual maturity (Hebrews 5:12-6:4); the main argument of the letter presupposes a concern that some would seek to return to the old covenant and no longer persevere in Christ (Hebrews 4:1-9:27). He rebukes them for their inability to recognize God’s discipline and its benefit (Hebrews 12:3-11) as well as their frailness (Hebrews 12:12-16). Yet even here the Hebrew author does not deny the love the Christians have for one another, only insisting that it continue (Hebrews 13:1). He also commends them for their steadfastness in the former days (Hebrews 10:32-36).

The love of the brethren does continue. When Christians find themselves in great need, other Christians are there to assist financially, emotionally, and spiritually. Christians are active in serving other Christians and those in the world around them, be it through volunteering, adoption, hospitality, mentoring, or in other similar ways (Galatians 6:10). Christians remain generous in giving to those in need as well as for the support of those who preach the Gospel in the United States and around the world (1 Corinthians 9:14). Christians young and old yearn to see the Gospel message taken to more people in more places and are willing to support that endeavor any way they can. And Christians still do show hospitality to one another, sharing meals together, opening their homes to each other, and enjoying the conversations and time spent together (1 Peter 4:9).

Are there exceptions to these? Of course. Is everything well? No. But we must remember that we are not alone, that there are other Christians around the world who seek to proclaim the Lord Jesus in their lives (1 Peter 5:9). Christians do seek to apply the life of Jesus to their own lives and appreciate all encouragement, exhortation, and even rebukes given toward that end (2 Timothy 4:1-4). Christians still prove interested in spiritual matters, even among the younger generations. It is imperative that we continue to cultivate these good trends.

There are problems and will always be problems. We cannot avoid those problems nor should we pretend they do not exist. We must call out sin and false teaching (1 Timothy 4:1-4, 2 Timothy 4:1-6); we must warn against conformity to the world (1 John 2:15-17). But it is not all bad and all bleak, and if we maintain such a perspective, we might just make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yes, we must exhort and rebuke regarding failures, sin, and error, but we must also encourage and appreciate the good, the love, and the faithfulness, and seek to nurture it further. When we do exhort and rebuke, let us do so in love because we want to see our fellow Christians reflecting Christ more accurately so that we no longer have to make such exhortations and rebukes. In all things, let us all continue to love one another and appreciate all endeavors which lead to the glorification of God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Maintaining Good Works

Faithful is the saying, and concerning these things I desire that thou affirm confidently, to the end that they who have believed God may be careful to maintain good works. These things are good and profitable unto men (Titus 3:8).

Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of discipleship is maintaining good works. Yes, in many ways, there is a bit of a learning curve in Christianity; when we come to faith in Jesus, we have much to learn and gain from instruction and exhortation regarding how we should live. At that time we are also motivated by early enthusiasm for our faith. But what happens after we have been seeking to follow Jesus for awhile? How will we continue to be motivated toward good works?

Paul is aware of the challenge, and his solution might seem odd to some: further exhortation and reminder of what has transpired in the past (Titus 3:3-7).

It is easy for us to consider preaching and teaching only in terms of instruction; we have been conditioned by our society to associate a lack of proper conduct with a lack of knowledge. If we do not do what we are supposed to do, it is as if we have not been properly instructed. Nevertheless, most of the time we do know what we are to do; any Christian who has read a bit of Scripture and heard it preached frequently should have a decent understanding of what God expects from them. Much of the exhortation in Scripture is provided for Christians as a reminder of things they should already know (cf. 2 Peter 1:12-13). Doing righteousness and avoiding immorality is not “new news” to Christians; the greater danger is a weakening of zeal and developing complacency in one’s spiritual life (cf. Revelation 2:1-10).

Therefore, it is not strange or even surprising for Paul to insist on continual encouragement and exhortation, not to necessarily provide new information, but to constantly reinforce what has already been taught so as to keep such things at the forefront of the Christian’s mind, giving him or her greater strength to resist the deceitfulness of sin (cf. Hebrews 3:12-14). But what is the message the will truly motivate Christians to maintain good works?

Much of Paul’s letter to Titus is toward these ends. Jesus gave Himself up for Christians to redeem them from sin and to purify a people to Himself (Titus 2:11-14). Christians are to be subject to authorities, not speaking evil but being gentle and meek (Titus 3:1-2). But why?

Paul explains more fully in Titus 3:3-7 what he said simply in Titus 2:11-14: Christians were once in a terrible state. The list is unpleasant: foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hated (Titus 3:3). Salvation came through the kindness and mercy of God, not our own works; we were cleansed by the washing of regeneration (baptism) and the renewing of the Holy Spirit, not our own futile efforts (Titus 3:4-5). This allowed us to become heirs of the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:6-7). Paul intends to motivate Christians to good works through this message.

How will such a message motivate? There are three aspects to the message: our sinfulness and inability to save ourselves, God’s love, mercy, and kindness reflected through Jesus in providing the means for our redemption, and our ability to hold to hope of eternity through Jesus. These three put together can encourage the believer to good works!

How can the reminder of our sinfulness and inability to save ourselves motivate us to good works? By itself, it could not; it would lead to despair and paralysis on account of guilt. Without this reminder, however, it is easy to get puffed up and overconfident in our “holiness.” We are easily tempted to develop an “us” versus “them” attitude against those outside of the faith; it is tempting to feel as if “we” are better than “they.” This is why Paul says that we “also” were foolish, led astray by passion, etc.; on our own, we are no better off or superior in any way to those still lost in the world of sin. We were lost too at some point; we were terribly sinful as well. We could not save ourselves; this reality should keep us humble!

Thankfully, God provided the means by which we could be rescued from ourselves. We did not deserve it, nor could we; God has freely displayed love, kindness, mercy, and grace through Jesus and the redemption and reconciliation obtained through His life and death. This is an important piece of the story, but by no means the only one: without a recognition of our sin, we cannot appreciate the redemption we have obtained; without hope for the future, there would not be as much motivation to move forward. Nevertheless, atonement and reconciliation through Jesus is the centerpiece of the Gospel and of this message of encouragement: we could not save ourselves, and no deed can save us, but God has provided the means by which we can obtain cleansing through Jesus’ blood in baptism and the renewal of the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel makes it plain that Jesus’ death without Jesus’ resurrection would have been without power or sufficiency for anything (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). It is through Jesus’ resurrection that we maintain the hope for eternal life in our own resurrection. God wants us to be rescued and preserved now but with a view toward the resurrection of life for eternity (1 Peter 1:3-9)!

It is lamentable how the various truths in Titus 3:3-7 have been distorted and used against each other since Paul speaks with such harmony. We were lost in sin and could not save ourselves; God provided the means of atonement and reconciliation through Jesus; through this believers have hope for eternal life; these truths motivate believers to maintain good works. This pattern does not show contradiction or inconsistency, but balance. If we will honor God in our lives, it is because we maintain humility, understanding that we are no better than anyone else and cannot save ourselves; it is because we remain thankful, always keeping Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins in mind; it is because we can look forward with confidence in the resurrection, which itself infuses the present life with purpose and meaning. When we remain humble, thankful, and forward-looking, we will devote ourselves to the good works for which our Creator made us (Ephesians 2:10).

As humans, we are weak, and constantly in need of exhortation and encouragement. We do well to always keep all aspects of the big picture in mind: our former state, the means by which we obtained our present state, our future hope, and all of those to motivate us toward obedience now. Let us seek to perpetually honor and glorify Christ through our lives!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Intercession of the Holy Spirit

And in like manner the Spirit also helpeth our infirmity: for we know not how to pray as we ought; but the Spirit himself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered; and he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God (Romans 8:26-27).

People have a tendency to romanticize childhood for many reasons. Many people remember childhood as a time of innocence, a time with far fewer cares. Sure, we thought we had problems, challenges, and difficulties as we grew up, but most of us would gladly trade our present understanding and trials for the “difficulties” of childhood!

Childhood is only care-free when parents and other adults foster an environment in which children can be care-free. Plenty of trials, sufferings, challenges, and responsibilities need to be addressed, but the adults most often handle them. Sadly, many children grow up too quickly because of their circumstances: governmental oppression, loss of parents, divorce, illnesses, or other factors may cause children to learn more about the reality of life than they probably should at their age. Children, therefore, are care-free because they do not know much better; they have not yet been exposed to the challenges of life that their parents take care of for them.

There is only one problem with all of this: we “grow up” and start thinking that we now all of a sudden do understand all of the difficulties, challenges, and issues that surround us. We think we have a handle on reality.

As Paul seeks to encourage the Romans, he makes a startling declaration in Romans 8:26: the Spirit helps us in our infirmity, or weakness: we do not know what to pray for as we ought.

But wait a moment: we know what we should pray for, right? We should pray to thank God for all the blessings with which He has blessed us in Jesus (1 Corinthians 14:16-17). We should pray for all men so that we can live in tranquility and for them to come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved (1 Timothy 2:1-4). We should pray for one another for each other’s welfare (James 5:16). We should always be in constant communication with God our Defender (Ephesians 6:18). How, then, can Paul say that we do not know what to pray for as we ought?

All of these things are well and good, and we should pray for them. Yet, as Paul says, we are weak. For one thing, we are often forgetful and take many things for granted; there are many things for which we know we should pray but we forget or overlook them. For that matter, we do not really understand reality as well as we think we do. There is an entire realm beyond our perception but is very real: the spiritual realm, in which the spiritual forces of good and evil constantly conflict (Ephesians 6:10-18, Revelation 4:1-22:6). There is much to the “secret things” of God, far beyond human understanding (Deuteronomy 29:29, Isaiah 55:8-9). We cannot perceive the spiritual realm all around us; therefore, we are very much like children, oblivious to all sorts of things that may endanger us or cause us difficulty.

But just as parents do all they can to take care of their children and often to shield their children from many of the difficulties and hazards of life, so God provides a way to take care of the needs of believers they neglect to mention or concerning which they are completely ignorant: the Holy Spirit intercedes on their behalf with groanings too deep for words (Romans 8:26). The Father knows the mind of the Spirit, for the Spirit intercedes for believers according to the will of God (Romans 8:27).

There are many who question this understanding of the passage, wondering whether Jesus is the only true intercessor for believers, and that the spirit of the believer, not the Holy Spirit, is under discussion. The challenge cannot be sustained. For one thing, we do not see such a complete contrast between a believer, a believer’s “heart,” and a believer’s spirit as such an interpretation would demand. The solution does not get rid of the perceived problem anyway, since Paul says that the “spirit” intercedes for the saints according to the will of God in Romans 8:27, and so there remains an intercessor for saints beyond Jesus. While it is true that Jesus is the only Mediator (1 Timothy 2:5), mediation and intercession, while similar, are not the same thing. A mediator (Greek mesites) is like an arbitrator, standing between two parties; in this case, Jesus stands between God and man, having partaken of the nature of each. An intercessor (Greek noun enteuxis, verb entugchano) speaks on behalf of another without necessarily taking on the nature of each or the case of each. Yes, Jesus does intercede for us before the Father as well (cf. Romans 8:34, Hebrews 7:25), but intercession is never considered something that only He can do. Believers are to intercede for all men (1 Timothy 2:1); the Holy Spirit, as we see in Romans 8:26-27, intercedes for believers before the Father with groans too deep for words.

What an encouraging and comforting message! There are all sorts of pitfalls, problems, and dangers we happen upon in life; how well do we remember to pray regarding them? There are many times when we get so caught up in ourselves and the way we see things in our weakness; how many times have we forgotten to pray to obtain perspective? There are innumerable details that make up our lives; how many of those details do we take up in prayer before the Almighty? How many times do we feel as if we have been neglected by God? What if God has always been there and the Spirit has always been interceding for us, taking very good care of us, and yet we never had an inkling or an idea since it did not involve things we could see or hear?

We must remain diligent in prayer and never allow any excuse or rationalization to keep us away from praying about anything and everything (Luke 18:1-8, 1 Thessalonians 5:17, 1 Peter 5:7). Nevertheless, we will remain weak, and God knows that. The Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Godhead, intercedes for us before the Father for innumerable and untold concerns, issues, and opportunities. Meanwhile the Son intercedes as well before the Father; two of the three Persons of the Godhead intercede before the other Person on our behalf (cf. Romans 8:34)!

God cares for us. God intercedes within Himself on our behalf. He does not abandon us or forsake us. How much humble pie will we be served on the final day if or when God makes it evident to us just how active He had been in our lives, with the Son and the Spirit interceding on our behalf, seeking our welfare in ways we neglected, took for granted, or could never even understand? Those among us who are parents may have an inkling of it when we look back and see how our parents took care of us and how much that involved concerning which we were entirely ignorant! Let us therefore trust God, ever thankful for His care, praying constantly for those things concerning which we understand, sustained by the intercession of the Holy Spirit for all that which we do not!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Casting Down to Build Up

For this cause I write these things while absent, that I may not when present deal sharply, according to the authority which the Lord gave me for building up, and not for casting down (2 Corinthians 13:10).

We all know of people who are very good at tearing others down. They exist in every facet of life. We see politicians who are convinced that their opponent is wrong but does not necessarily have a lot to say about what is right; likewise there are voters who are definitely against one particular candidate even if they are not really “for” any of them. In families there always seems to be a relative or two who can say nothing good about anything and is full of complains and criticisms. What workplace would be complete without the employee who is constantly grumbling about what is wrong and why things are not getting better? And, sadly, even among Christians, there are many who focus entirely on the negatives. They are very quick to point out the flaws in other Christians, in local churches, and in the church as a whole. They are always confident in the demise of Christianity, a local church, and so on and so forth.

Oftentimes such people are really masking their own insecurities. By focusing on everyone else’s problems they can conveniently forget about their own. Anyone who would challenge their critical attitudes are maligned as not being sufficiently concerned enough about various dangers, or are slandered as being “soft” on “the truth.”

Yet, in reality, such people are not as spiritual or as mature as they would like to think. They are filled with the spirit of judgment and condemnation, which ends up always being hypocritical, and it often sets at nought fellow people for whom Christ died. There is a reason why the Scriptures consistently witness against such attitudes (Matthew 7:1-4, Romans 14:7-12, James 4:11-12)!

Nevertheless, there are times when there does need to be concerns about various challenges– doctrinal error (1 Timothy 4:1-4, etc.), Christians and churches not seeking to reflect the Lord Jesus accurately (cf. Romans 8:28, Revelation 3, etc.). Yet, in such things, perspective is critical.

Paul has plenty of reason to criticize the Corinthians– and he certainly does criticize them. They are being persuaded by false teachers to discredit Paul and his testimony (2 Corinthians 11:1-33). There is great concern that many of the Christians are acting in ungodly ways without repentance (2 Corinthians 12:20-21).

Paul does not go soft on the Corinthians. He rebukes those in sin and warns them that they will not be spared (2 Corinthians 13:1-3). He will not sit by idly while Satan devours the church in Corinth. He clearly sees the problems in Corinth. But notice that his resolve does not stop there!

Paul does not use his authority to tear down and walk away– he uses his authority to tear down so that he can build up again (2 Corinthians 13:10). That is what Christ intends for him to do. Anyone can criticize. Anyone can point out problems. But God’s work, ultimately, is edification and encouragement– building up and strengthening (1 Corinthians 14:26, Ephesians 4:11-16, Hebrews 10:25).

Even though the processes may seem to begin in the same way, there is a world of difference between casting down for the sake of casting down and casting down for the sake of building up again. There is much more investment and concern when we are seeking to build up, a greater resolve for things to work out well, and greater concern about precisely how things are cast down. The ultimate end is in view, not just the short-term.

We need to seriously consider ourselves in our faith as to whether we are one of “those people” who are good at tearing down but not at building up (2 Corinthians 13:5). How well has that gone? How many people have you pushed away or hurt, regardless of your intentions? Were you really seeking the best interest of your neighbor, or were you just trying to put on the sanctimonious pious face (cf. Philippians 2:3)?

If anyone ever had the right and the ideal circumstance in which to tear down just to demolish sin, it would have been Paul with the Corinthians. Nevertheless, even with that flawed group of people, Paul’s intention was to build them up. Yes, he had to cast down sinfulness, false doctrines, unholy thoughts and attitudes, and other difficulties. But the goal was not just to tear down and leave a gaping hole– his purpose was to have the opportunity to then rebuild in a more holy and suitable way.

Our goal must be the same. Whenever we have to cast sin down, we must do so only after considering ourselves and our own challenges (Matthew 7:1-4, Galatians 6:1-3), after much prayer and deliberation, and making sure that it is being done for the ultimate benefit of those whom we are challenging, and not of ourselves in rivalry or empty conceit (Matthew 18:15-20, Galatians 6:1, Philippians 2:1-4). We must then make sure that we strengthen and build up such a one in their faith. Pointing out problems is easy; seeking to understand challenges so as to improve and to make things better is quite another. If we are ready to critique, we must be ready to repair and rebuild.

The world, this country, the workplace, the family, and the church will sadly never lack people who tear down. Tearing down just for the sake of demolition has never been, is not, nor ever will be God’s way or God’s intention for us. Let us have the same spirit as Paul and cast down for the purpose of building up, seeking the best interest of our neighbor to ultimately strengthen him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Encouraging Words

Heaviness in the heart of a man maketh it stoop; but a good word maketh it glad (Proverbs 12:25).

Contrary to the feelings of many, no man is an island. No man (or woman) is entirely impervious to their environment or their circumstances.

We all go through times in life when our hearts are heavy. The reasons for heavy hearts are legion. Loved ones may hurt us or betray us, or we invest a lot of our emotional time and energy in their distress. They may pass away. We may be hurt by the words or actions of people around us. We may lose a job, develop a debilitating illness, or be in the midst of a very stressful period in life. Many times we allow the influences of the outside world and its continual panic to get us down.

Whatever the reason the distress is quite real. It is not as easy to live with a heavy heart as otherwise (cf. Proverbs 18:14). There is less motivation to engage in the simple functions of life, let alone anything else. It is hard to concentrate. It is hard to be civil and put on a false face in front of others. And it is especially difficult to “keep the faith” and believe that better times are ahead.

There is a natural tendency, in such circumstances, to retreat. It seems easier to not feel at all than to feel distress.

But the “unfelt life” is not really life at all. We all enjoy the highs/peaks of life. If there are highs/peaks, there must, at some point, be lows/valleys. We all experience them; we all have to live through them.

Yet there is something that makes it all just a little more tolerable, and that is a “good word.” Can we all not think of times when we were in distress (or perhaps just stress) and someone took out the time to encourage us and to build us up? Have we all not had experiences where we were laid low but the strengthening words of another lifted us up?

Words of affirmation and encouragement always have value. Little wonder, then, that God commands believers through the Apostles and others to encourage one another (1 Corinthians 14:23, Hebrews 10:25, Jude 1:20). Words of encourage sustain and uplift in times of distress and trouble. They reinforce us in the good times. There is no circumstance in which truly encouraging words cannot provide some benefit!

But for there to be good words there must be people who understand their value and are willing to freely provide them. Encouraging people are always in the minority; there is a superabundance of critics, cynics, and pessimists. Nevertheless, we all know the superior value of having a “Barnabas” in our life than the pessimists and cynics (cf. Acts 4:36-37). If we understand the value of having a “Barnabas” in our lives, how much more should we then strive to be the “Barnabas” for our fellow man!

There are few things that we can do that have a more lasting impression on others than to be there for them in times of distress with good words of encouragement, affirmation, and strength. Let us be a “Barnabas” and speak good words to all!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Following Afar Off

And they seized [Jesus], and led him away, and brought him into the high priest’s house. But Peter followed afar off (Luke 22:54).

The night’s confused events were taking place rapidly.

They had all spent the night eating the Passover with Jesus, and they all knew that the time was near. Jesus had indicated that He would not drink the fruit of the vine again until the Kingdom had come (Luke 22:18). He had served His disciples and instructed them in many things regarding His imminent departure (John 13-17).

And then, in the garden, Judas had come with the band of soldiers. Peter felt that this was the time to act, and he cut off Malchus’ ear (cf. Luke 22:47-51, John 18:10-11). Jesus censured him for the move, and healed Malchus. All of the disciples then turned and fled while Jesus was led away (Matthew 26:56).

Soon after, Peter remembered exactly what he had told Jesus and what Jesus had said. Peter said that he would go with Jesus both to prison and to death (Luke 22:33). He could not abandon his Master now, and so he followed from afar.

The pieces were then in place. Peter sat with others and warmed himself by the fire (Luke 22:55). It was in this setting that his courage failed him. He had three opportunities to confess Jesus, and he denied Him three times (Luke 22:56-60). Then Jesus turned and looked at him (Luke 22:61). We can only imagine how Peter felt at that moment!

Thus Peter betrayed Jesus. It was really classic Peter, exhibiting the same type of initial brashness and then wavering as seen when he walked on the water and then began to sink (cf. Matthew 14:28-31). Peter as a man of little faith was exposed again.

That exposure was unnecessary as we can see. The disciples had fled, and Peter could have continued to flee. He could have waited out this tempestuous time away from the danger and would not have had the opportunity to deny Jesus. Yet Peter, as impetuous as always, followed Jesus into the danger zone, and, as usual, failed.

But would Jesus have really wanted Peter to flee and not experience the testing of faith? That is a much more difficult question. As much as Peter’s denials must have pierced Jesus’ soul, Peter was at least willing to suffer the danger of being near Him. The abandonment was not entirely complete, as it certainly was for some of the other disciples.

After Pentecost the day would come when Peter would again step forth into the danger zone, but this time he would not fail– he boldly stood before the Sanhedrin and confessed Jesus as the Risen Christ (Acts 4:1-23). Peter would be the one to stand and preach the first Gospel message to Jews (Acts 2:14-36) and Gentiles (Acts 10:1-48), and, according to tradition, follow his Lord and Master to death by crucifixion (John 21:18). All of this was because Peter was not one to flee but to be willing to, if nothing else, at least follow afar off.

There are many times in our lives when confused events take place rapidly. Times of distress and difficulty come upon us; many times we do not expect them. When our faith is tested, and we feel as if we are going to be bereft of our Lord, how will we respond? Will we be as many of the disciples and run away, attempting to avoid all the possible dangers? There is a time and place for that, assuredly, but not always. Or will we be like Peter, willing to follow even if it is afar off, willing to risk our livelihoods and our lives to follow Jesus?

Perhaps we will find ourselves in that kind of situation and we fail like Peter failed. We should then “turn again” and “strengthen our brethren” (cf. Luke 22:32), repenting and seeking to do better. Or maybe we will succeed and stand firm, proclaiming through our word and deed in distress and difficulty that we are servants of Jesus Christ. Then God receives the glory (cf. 1 Peter 4:11).

We have no reason to believe that Peter the Apostle could have been the force for good for the Kingdom that he turned out to be had he not been Simon the disciple who was willing to follow and yet failed. Likewise, we will never be the disciples of Jesus Christ we can be, and we will not be able to be the force for good for the Kingdom that we should be, if we never take the risk of following Jesus in difficult, distressing times. We might very well stumble and perhaps even fail; the flesh is weak even when the spirit is willing. We can learn from our failures and move on. And perhaps we will succeed and God will be glorified and it will be evident how wise it was to follow and not flee. But that day will never come if we always flee, never taking the risk, never being exposed to the danger.

What kind of disciples of Christ are we? Let us seek to follow Jesus, even when the times are difficult, even when the danger is evident, take the risk, and stand firm for Him and His Kingdom!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Futility in Effort

“Vanity of vanities,” saith the Preacher; “vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit hath man of all his labor wherein he laboreth under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3).

There is nothing quite as futile as shoveling snow.

It does not matter how much snow has fallen. It does not matter how elaborately the mounds of snow are piled up. It may snow again, and then you have to shovel all that snow onto all the previous snow. And then, after a few months or days, it is all gone– melted and drained away.

Then again, mowing the lawn feels a lot like shoveling snow. One goes and mows the lawn and it looks nice and fresh. Then, after a week or a month, depending on location and weather factors, the lawn looks just like it did before mowing. And thus it must be mowed again. And the cycle repeats itself.

When you stop and think about it, pretty much everything seems futile. Clothes are washed only to get dirty again and require washing. Dishes are cleaned only to be dirtied again. Meals are cooked and eaten, and those who ate hunger again.

Sports teams play their seasons. Most teams never make it to the playoffs, and the fans are left believing, “maybe next year.” Some teams make it to the playoffs only to lose then. And then there is the championship game. A winner is crowned. The team and fans exult. And then everyone gets ready for the next year and the next season and the next set of playoffs and the next championship.

There seems to be futility even in the area of spiritual matters. A preacher preaches lessons on one Sunday only to have to work to preach new lessons the next Sunday. The Lord’s Supper is taken one week, and then is taken the next week. The same things are done over and over again, only to need to be done over and over again.

It is very easy to take a step back and ask yourself, “what is the point of it all?” After all, everything seems so pointless! “Why bother?,” one may ask!

The reason that everything seems so “worthless” in this perspective is because we have been raised to expect there to be some great overarching purpose and meaning in life that makes every single event seem important. Ever since the Tower of Babel man has attempted to invest his deeds with great earthly significance (cf. Genesis 11:4). We are raised to go out and “make a difference” in society. We are strengthened and encouraged to believe that our participation in various efforts– employment, volunteerism, politics, etc.– will have lasting value.

Yet, ultimately, the Preacher is correct. All is vanity– futility– emptiness. We may like to think a lot of our efforts have lasting worldly significance, but such is not really true. One of these days everything around us will be thoroughly destroyed by fire and the memory of them will entirely fade (cf. 2 Peter 3:9-12)!

Does this mean that all is lost? Should we all despair of life? Hardly! The problem is not in the activities of snow shoveling, lawn mowing, household chores, and the like, but our perspective on them. We must recognize that everything we do should be means to an end, and not the end in and of itself. We have many functions that are just functions of life, and we should learn to be content with the fact that they will come and go.

As Jesus indicates, there is only one place where moth does not eat and rust does not destroy, and that is Heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). The spiritual realm is the only realm of any permanence. That is why all of our effort, ultimately, must be to the glory of God and to the promotion of His purposes (Matthew 5:13-16, 6:33). The functions of life must be done as a means to the end of glorifying God. Shoveling snow, mowing the lawn, and household chores are the means by which we serve our family members and others, and in so doing, we serve God (Ephesians 5:23-6:4). Doing the best work we can for an employer is as serving the Lord (cf. Ephesians 6:5-9). Our assemblies and the actions therein are accomplished for encouragement and edification, and thus promote God’s purposes (1 Corinthians 14:26, Hebrews 10:24-25).

The Preacher indicates that all things done for their own benefit in their own name are vanity. Paul indicates that all things done “in the Lord” are not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). Let us not allow ourselves to be distracted or to invest our energies in things that lead to no profit, but instead to serve God and promote His purposes on earth!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Giving Thanks

In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus to you-ward (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

We are soon approaching the time when our country observes Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving was intended to be a time to reflect and give thanks for all the wonderful blessings we share. Unfortunately, in the eyes of many, it has just turned into an opportunity to eat one or more over-sized meals.

Bible believers recognize that God has never set aside one day for us to give thanks– He intends for believers to be people constantly marked by thankfulness. As Paul indicates, God’s will for us in Christ is to give thanks in everything (1 Thessalonians 5:18)!

Giving thanks is a humbling experience, for it teaches us how indebted we are to God. If it were not for God’s blessings toward us, we would not have the heavens or the earth (Genesis 1:1-2:4), the opportunity to have association with God through Christ (Romans 5:1-11), the love and comfort of our spiritual family (1 Corinthians 12:12-28), or the hope of eternity beyond this life (John 3:16). If it were not for God, we would not exist (Acts 17:28); without Christ, we would be hopeless, lost entirely in sin, and waiting for condemnation (Romans 6:23, Ephesians 2:11-12)!

Therefore, when we give thanks, it is hard to be proud or to believe that we are “self-made” people. When we give thanks, we learn again how we are weak and God is strong and how we need to trust Him and lean on Him, and not trust in ourselves (cf. 2 Corinthians 1:9, 12:9-10)!

Giving thanks should also be an encouraging and uplifting experience that should assist us in keeping a proper perspective. It is easy to get discouraged and distressed in our lives, and it is easy to fall into the trap of letting our discouragement distort our perspective in life. But when we give thanks, we are forced to no longer focus on what is going wrong and what we do not have but instead to focus on all the things that God has done for us in this creation and through Christ (cf. Ephesians 1:3). When we consider the great cost of our salvation which God freely paid, it is much easier to trust that God will also be faithful and helpful in the comparatively minor challenges we experience in life (cf. Romans 8:32). When we consider all that God has promised and accomplished, and see what God is doing, we can look with hopeful eyes toward that which God has promised for our future (cf. Romans 8:18). When we stop and realize all of these wonderful things that God has done, is doing, and will do, the “light momentary affliction” we are experiencing will be put into its proper perspective (2 Corinthians 4:17)! When we truly recognize how God loves us, how can we but rejoice in the Lord always (cf. Philippians 4:4)?

It is good and right for us to give thanks during this holiday season– and after this holiday season, and at every opportunity. It is good for us to give thanks lest we begin to take God’s current blessings for granted and succumb to the travails and distress of life. Let us always give thanks for the wonderful blessings of God and strive toward the goal of eternal life!

Ethan R. Longhenry